Friday, May 26, 2017

Cry Wilderness (1987) – MST3K Review

Paul Cooper (Eric Foster) is away at boarding school when Bigfoot (Tom Folkes) arrives on campus in the middle of the night. The big lug tells Paul that his father Will (Maurice Grandmaison) is in danger and Paul should come to his aid. Why would Bigfoot come to see Paul in the first place? Well over the summer Paul spent time with his forest ranger father, ran into the big cryptid and befriended him over Cokes.

Paul runs away from school and arrives in the forest. His father seems ok. But Will and his Native American pal Jim (John Tallman) are hunting an escaped tiger. For some reason Jim thinks everything is funny and spends most of the film in full-throated laughter. Don’t ask. Then acclaimed hunter Morgan Hicks (Griffin Casey) arrives. At first everyone thinks he is there to hunt the tiger, but Paul discovers that Morgan may be after Bigfoot! Can Paul find and warn his huge hairy pal, or will it end in tears as we all Cry Wilderness.

Movie Review:

Yeah I was missing Link, but now that the new
Zelda game... oh sorry wrong Link.
At first I was baffled about the origin of this fine film. It was unleashed in 1987, well after the Bigfoot mania of the 70s and early 80s. You can see it was going for the “kid meets alien friend” genre inspired by E.T. The Extraterrestrial and further developed by movies like Mac and Me and Pod People. But then I saw that Harry and the Hendersons came out in 1987, so that pretty much confirmed it. Cry Wilderness was an attempt to cash in on that family friendly flick.

The result is a movie that rivals Pod People in sheer confusion and oddity. Cry Wilderness never seems to have a handle on what kind of movie it wants to be, who its audience is, and what kind of tone it is reaching for. I think most people who attempt to watch this film will spend their time trying to untangle the web of bizarre strangeness in front of them.

Either Paul is receiving a message from Bigfoot, or
the mother ship just landed in San Diego!
Let’s start with the basic story and how it is told. The key plot element is Paul attempting to save his father from some kind of danger. Bigfoot was really vague when he delivered the message, so Paul doesn’t know what to look for. So the bulk of the film follows Paul, Will and Jim wandering around the forest, with Paul trying to keep his dad from doing anything. For his part Will has a dangerous job, so he keeps trying to keep Paul from getting into trouble, but Paul won’t listen to anyone taller than him, but shorter than Bigfoot.

Not a lot of Bigfoot in this movie, but there are plenty
of raccoons. You like raccoons, right?
This “conflict” doesn’t drive the movie forward. Instead, Cry Wilderness just kind of meanders around, not really sure what to do with itself. Morgan is supposed to be an antagonist of sorts, but his conflict is with Bigfoot and Paul, and has nothing to do with Will. So it is really a side story that also meanders around. Mostly Morgan smiles evilly and shows Paul pictures of Bigfoot. It’s just an odd story element.

When the danger that threatens Will is revealed, it turns out to be rock fall in a mine. A rock fall caused by Will shouting for Paul, because the little idiot wandered away again. So in classic twist right out of Greek Tragedy, Paul is the cause of his own father’s momentary danger. Then Bigfoot shows up and pulls the Styrofoam boulders off Will and saves the day. Sorry, no spoiler warning, but the plot twist is so dumb, I don’t even count it.

Not a lot of Bigfoot in this movie, but there's plenty
of this tiger. You like tigers right?
The other issue here is the fact that you have a movie with Bigfoot plastered all over the marketing materials and trying to ride the wave of popularity of Harry and the Hendersons (was that movie even popular?) and yet Bigfoot is barely in the film. You would think that if you were trying to follow the whole E.T. bandwagon, you’d have the movie focus on the discovery and development of the friendship between Paul and Bigfoot. But we don’t even get a flashback scene to establish that. Paul just goes around telling his classmates and disbelieving teacher all about it for the first ten minutes of the film.

This leads some folks to think that Cry Wilderness is a sequel to something. But try as we might, there is no evidence of a first adventure featuring Paul and Bigfoot drinking Cokes in front of a waterfall.

In my opinion, the movie’s script didn’t focus on the key conflict of the story – Paul trying to save his father. Or it could have been Paul trying to save Bigfoot. By trying to do both and trying to weave them together the movie is just a mess from the start.

Be very very quiet. I'm hunting cryptids.
Heck I think we could have gone the full 1980s route with this. Ok, stick with me here. This is my pitch for a new and improved take on Cry Wilderness. So Paul doesn’t see his father much because Will is a forest ranger. Even when he goes to the woods to stay with his father, Will just isn’t around because of his work. So Paul finds Bigfoot and he becomes a surrogate friend/father figure. Morgan shows up hunting down the escaped tiger, and actually sees Bigfoot and changes his plans. Will might also see Bigfoot and decide to protect him. This puts all the characters into conflict with each other, and it drives the narrative. The hunt for the tiger turns into a hunt for Bigfoot, and maybe the tiger gets Morgan, or maybe Bigfoot saves Will from the tiger, or maybe Morgan tries to kill Will to get him out of the way and that is how Paul can save his father. I don’t know, but anything is better than what we ended up with.

This scenery is too good for this movie.
There are some good points. All the location shooting in Cry Wilderness is pretty impressive. Paul’s school was filmed in Balboa Park in San Diego, California. It is a lovely locale and they do some fun stuff with it. But the real treat is all the outdoor work for the forest, an old mine and eerie Mono Lake, all filmed in central California. These impressive locations provide a great setting for the film and is probably the best part of it.

Well, there is the end title song, which is such a bizarre thing that it provides plenty of unintentional laughs. It is an inspirational folk ballad, except someone forgot to tell the singer to actually be inspirational. Instead he tells the listener to not try too hard, because you’ll probably just fail anyway. I would think it was a parody if it wasn’t so sincere. The rest of the music and sound are adequate. I don’t think the composer tried too hard, because he was afraid he’d fail anyway.

Keep trying Will, but Paul isn't going to listen.
But let me tell you about the acting in Cry Wilderness. First off Eric Foster as Paul isn’t bad. He’s playing the precocious kid well enough. I don’t like to pick on child actors, because it’s a tough job and they usually are doing the best they can. No, the character of Paul is obnoxious and annoying as written. I don’t think Foster is to blame for making us all want to lock the kid in a log cabin with his raccoon pals.

Now the adults are another matter. First off, nearly all of them are dubbed. I have no idea why. Will sounds especially hilarious, with a very deep voice that just doesn’t seem to match the actor. Maybe Maurice had an accent, and they thought dubbing would help. But then why dub Jim? His voice actually fits, so maybe it was all done in post, but it is still odd. Morgan seems dubbed half the time. Faith Clift who plays Dr. Helen Foster, the vet that appears halfway through the film for no reason, is fully dubbed. Her voice also doesn’t seem to fit.

Keep that raccoon away, or Morgan may have it
for dessert.
Oh and I should note that Morgon is another disturbing villain in the long pantheon of disturbing villains in Mystery Science Theater films. He’s a loud-mouthed jerk. You kind of expect that when you first see him chowing down on stolen food like a barbarian. But when he starts strangling a raccoon that just goes past the point of no return. And yes, it looks like the actor is actually roughing up the poor little creature, so any of you with soft hearts to animals may want to look away. The movie does end up giving Morgan his just desserts in the end, but he’s so loathsome and stupid it can’t come soon enough. He seems too overboard to be in a kids flick, more like the kind of villain you’d run into in a Golan Globus Ninja action movie.

But dubbed movies on Mystery Science Theater are not a new thing. And neither is bad acting. I guess all the adults figured that since they are in a kid’s film they need to play everything as big and broad as possible. So you get performances that are loud and abrasive to hilariously over the top. There are scenes where everyone is gesticulating so much you wait for someone to get wacked in the face by a flailing limb.

That's right Jim, laugh away the shame.
But the one thing you will never forget about Cry Wilderness is the laughing. Anytime Jim is on the screen, it won’t take long for him to burst out in full throated, head thrown back laughter. Nine times out of ten, someone else will join him in his mirth. And if you’re lucky everyone on screen is laughing at something. It doesn’t’ take much to set Jim off. It could be a slightly amusing story, wrestling with a bear (for no reason at all), or because everyone else is just standing around and there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. Or maybe, he realizes what a horrible move he is in, and figures that more laughter is the only way to dull the pain. Poor guy.

Finally we get to the direction. With a script this messy, there wasn’t a lot of hope for the film in the first place. But the movie is edited together with less care. I compared this film to Pod People, and I think the editing is what does it. Much like that film, Cry Wilderness jumps from scene to scene, sometimes with no relation to what happened before or what happens next. There are few transitions and even fewer that make any sense. Part of the issue with the jumbled narrative is a direct result of the poor editing. The movie feels like a bunch of vignettes stitched together to form some kind of plot. Just throw in some whimsy here, throw in some animals there, throw in Native American mysticism and you’ve got movie gold.

Wait, did this really happen? 
Yeah I forgot to mention Red Hawk (Foster Hood). He is a shaman (I think) who lives in the forest, but he may be a ghost (it is all so unclear). He babbles something about knowing Bigfoot, and there is a magic amulet that kind of plays into the story, but not really. It just comes out of nowhere and you are left wondering if you’re having a fever dream.

As far as bad movies go, Cry Wilderness is a good one. Because of the broad acting, non-stop laughing, bizarre editing, Bigfoot in a fake looking cave/temple and all the bad dubbing, you have a movie that is begging to be riffed on. Lets see what Jonah and the bots make of it.

Episode Review:

Either Bigfoot is going to push him off a cliff, or he's
going to start singing.
Season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 features a few films that seemed to be targeted at a younger audience. In some ways this feels like a bit of a cheap shot. Most people making a “kiddie flick” aren’t looking to make anything great, or even good. I’m not excusing this, but with all the crap I’ve seen shoved out for kids during my tenure at the video store, it was obvious to me that most creators of “kiddie flicks” are focused on profit over story or entertainment value.

Cry Wilderness never became the next E.T.; it was unable to do much of anything really. It is a bad movie, no question about it. That makes it fair game for Jonah and the bots, and I’m surprised they picked this one as their second film. It is such a bizarre barrage of a movie I would think they might want to have a few more films under their belt before tackling this mess.

"This movie is just like 'Ice Road Truckers' only
less staged."
But for the most part the riffing is solid. They do comment quite a bit about how odd the movie is and how they are having issues following it. But the movie is jam packed with odd sequences, over the top acting, stupid dialogue and endless laughing. It really is serving up all the right material to make this a classic.

When Paul is in the boarding school and talking to Bigfoot, Jonah comments that this must be Harry Potter and the Hendersons. Bigfoot is the butt of a lot of jokes actually, the funniest ones to me and my wife was when they kept making references to the giant Muppet from The Muppet Movie, Sweetums. I also got a kick out of Crow’s exclamation “Dr. Zaiss, you’re nude!”

Paul is the only one not packing heat in this pic... BANG!
Paul is also the source for a lot of the humor in riffing Cry Wilderness. He is such an obnoxious character and he never does anything his father or any adult tells him. In a scene where Paul is tied up Jonah declares, “Paul the people who love you had to tie you up. You’re NUTS!” But there is also a running gag that whenever characters with guns (nearly all of them) are on the screen and waving the guns around with reckless abandon (and usually when they are pointed at or near Paul) one of the boys yells “BANG!” Like the best running gags the timing on these is perfect, often popping up when you least expect it and providing plenty of laughs.

Speaking of laughs, the moments where Jim or any of the characters lapses into a hysterical fit of mirth is prime moment for riffing. Much like the joke in Starfighters about the mid-air refueling, Jonah and the bots go into a whole mess of different riffs to explain this odd phenomenon.

But a similar issue occurs here that happened in Reptilicus, some of the riffing ends up coming way too fast. One joke lands well and you are chuckling, but missing the next three rapid-fire riffs. In this way the pacing seems off to me, and makes the whole episode feel like it just misses hitting that sweet spot. But this does make Cry Wilderness a prime target for a rewatch to pick up on the bits you may have missed.

That's right Jonah, laugh away the shame.
The host segments are in the middle of the road here with one fun exception. Things start off with Gypsy attempting to do some repairs on the ship and keeps dropping tools on folks below. Crow tries to use his net to catch some and it goes wrong. For the invention exchange Jonah thinks Thanksgiving should have some carols attached to it, so he combines turkey carving with a Theremin to give Thanksgiving its own other-worldy soundtrack. It gets a bit Bernard Herrmann-esque. Kinga and Max present the Wheel of Fudgie the Whale, which allows you to create all kinds of neat ice cream cake characters from the same Fudgie the Whale mold. At the first break Jonah is laughing and laughing and the bots are cute raccoons, and there’s cereal boxes and mischief and Jonah can’t stop laughing and it all gets very surreal in a funny way. At the next break Jonah and the bots attempt to figure out how the movie got made. Using some models they come up with a workable theory.

These three are still up to no good!
But the next treat is the one longtime fans of the show will enjoy. Kinga gets a visit from her Grandma Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl), Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy) and Brain Guy (Bill Corbett). Seeing these three villains from the Sci-fi channel years show up and banter with Kinga and Max was really fun, and everyone is in character like no time had passed. It is all very silly, as you expect, but it is great to see the new series pay homage to the previous versions with special appearances from old cast members. The episode ends with Crow appearing as Red Hawk and choosing Max as his hero to save them from Kinga’s experiment. It almost works too, until Kinga walks in and spoils it all.

Bigfoot is delighted or horrified... you decide.
Cry Wilderness is fun episode, but the movie is so strange it is actually a bit distracting. I’ve watched it twice now and both times I’m so busy trying to figure out what the hell is happening and how this got made that I miss the riffing. The pacing of the jokes is a bit problematic too, and that leaves me enjoying this one, but not loving it. What is strange is that I’ve seen a lot of fans thinking this is one of the best episodes of the series. Its good to see that that aspect of the show continues, some folks love the episodes you don’t care for. But we can all agree it’s a fun time at the movies.

I give the episode three laughing Jims out of five.


This episode is available on Netflix Streaming.

The movie is so confusing because it takes place on Solaris!


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

And Then This Happened... Cry Wilderness

Bigfoot is a legend we are all curious about. Is he real? Is he a tall tale (pun kinda sorta intended)? Is he just a hoax meant to drive up tourist visits to backwoods towns? Maybe Bigfoot is all this and more too. The movie Cry Wilderness would certainly like for us to believe that. But mostly Bigfoot in that movie is... well, let's just say he is less than impressive. But at least when he does show up in the film, he provides plenty of unintentional humor.

Such as this little moment from Cry Wilderness. I think it is just itching for a caption, don't you?

And then this happened...


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: Star Wars CCG

The last major expansion I collected, the fearsome Death
Star II
 set, with the Rebel deck.
So for most folks thoughts of the original trilogy of Star Wars evoke memories of the 1970s or 1980s. And yeah I get all nostalgic and fuzzy about those decades and the Star Wars related joys they create. But for me the biggest peak of Star Wars joy was in the late 90s. It was suddenly cool to like Star Wars again, and with the build up to the Special Editions and finally the prequels it was a fun ride. I wrote a whole blog about it (probably need to revisit that one).

But one of the best combinations of 1990s and Star Wars that I remember from that era was the Star Wars Collectable Card Game. It was created by Decipher during the explosion of CCGs inspired by the success of Magic: The Gathering. Decipher already had success with their Star Trek CCG, and managed to score this space adventure franchise as well. They would continue well into the 2000's with a very fun Lord of the Rings CCG, but I'll save that for another blog.

The Star Wars Collectable Card Game (or just SWCCG to keep things short) had a fairly simple premise. Each player has 60 cards. One player plays the Rebels, the other players plays as the Galactic Empire. The goal is to drain your opponents deck of cards. First person who ends up without any cards in hand or in the reserve deck loses. This was ingenious, because you didn't need to keep score, your Lost Pile told you how well you were doing.

A selection of Galactic Empire cards featuring images
from all three films in the original trilogy.
The cards themselves were all based on images taken from the original trilogy. There were a few that were created digitally (mostly the planetary system cards), and a few that were visually enhanced (increase the contrast so you could see the shadowy alien in the cantina a little clearer). Later in the run they took some of the behind the scenes photos of props and sets and tinkered with those to make them part of the game. So there were plenty of cards from the SWCCG that offered images of the original trilogy that you had never seen before. All the cantina and Jabba the Hutt's palace cards were great. All the obscure aliens were a treat to see up close. So for a full fledged Star Wars nerd, these cards were just cool to have in general.

The cards also had flavor text, and much of it pulled from the films and the expanded universe of the time including Timothy's Zahn's novels, the video games and other supporting material. These days most of that stuff is considered non-canon, but who cares. A lot of it was creative and they way they worked it into the game structure was a blast.

I collected and played the game for a few years, as they went from the Premier set all the way to the final final one from the ending of Return of the Jedi called Death Star II. There were a few supplemental expansions after that that I picked up. But I never got around to collecting the cards for The Phantom Menace. Decipher released another CCG in between featuring images from Episode One. It wasn't a very good game and as I became more and more disenchanted with the latest film I ignored the official CCG releases. I guess I wasn't the only one because SWCCG eventually stopped after a few expansions based on The Phantom Menace.

A selection of Rebellion cards featuring images from all
three films and one all new image.
Two things appealed to me about the SWCCG. The first was the myriad of settings, characters, situations and styles of play turned each game into its own mini-Star Wars adventure. Sure you could recreate the Battle of Hoth if you wanted to. But as the expansions were released you could come up all kinds of stories that didn't even involve the main characters. Sometimes the game would go as you expected, but there were plenty of cards that would throw a wrench into situations.

One of the most memorable is when I had a whole group of Stormtroopers hunting down Princess Leia on Tatooine. My deck was based around superior firepower and overwhelming numbers of Stormtroopers. It was working pretty well too. One of my troopers had a nasty repeating rifle and I had plenty of ammo, so I figured Leia was toast. Well my wife was playing Rebels and had the card Weapon Levitation. Leia was Force sensitive, so she could use that ability. My wife gets a great number on her draw and my repeating blaster flies over to Leia, with the Power Droid attached! Leia turns around and guns down my entire squad with their own gun. She then high tails it to the Falcon and takes off into space with Lando. And believe me, in the SWCCG, once someone is aboard the Falcon, you never can get them. Besides I had to figure out how to rebuild my squadron, or risk losing Tatooine.

This is the Reserve deck showing how much life you have
left. The cards face up are the Lost Pile. Looks like
the Galactic Empire is losing this game!
That was the other element I loved about the game, the various strategies that you could play. For the Premier set it was a very basic battle game. And you could always play that way if you like. But each new expansion started to introduce new tactics. Since I played Imperials, I know most of their successful ones. For the Dagobah expansion you had the Bounty Hunter tactic, which allowed you to capture rebels and exchange them for lost cards. The bigger the target the more cards you got to retrieve. Of course captured cards could be freed by the rebels, so you had to protect your prisons, but even capturing lowly soldiers or aliens got you a card or two from the Lost pile. For the Cloud City expansion you got the Cloud drain tactic, which was a wicked one. You essentially gain control of Cloud City and hold it. Each turn your opponent loses cards steadily for each site you control, plus wicked bonus losses for each cloud sector you control. In the clouds, starships are weak, and capital ships can't enter. So Cloud Cars and Air Speeders are the best bet. Suddenly those common cards you never used became very powerful.

I could go on and on about tactics and the way you could start a deck to look like you are playing one style but have a sneaky twist part way through (the Rebel decks were really good at doing that). Suffice to say it was a very fun, but complicated game. I remember talking to the gent who owned the hobby store I used to frequent and he kept asking me and my co-worker to come in and play in store so other people could see how much fun it was. But I think he was trying to get us to mentor new players too. We never did that. We usually played after work with a couple beers and 90s alternative rock blasting in the background. Fun times, fun times.

My wife eventually got into playing it, and much of the later expansions I played were against her. She made a very deadly Ewok deck that pretty much handed my ass to me, just like in the film. And the Jabba's Palace deck gave her a ton of great aliens to use in her decks. So I have a lot of fun memories from those days. I still have all my cards (eight binders worth of them!) And I'll pull them out once in a while and look through the images and read some of the text.

Small sample of what the "game board"
of the SWCCG could look like.
Making a deck could take a couple hours with all the cards at your disposal. We would usually decide ahead of time what kind of game we wanted to play so it would narrow down the card selection.  Feeling like a grand space battle, then you can drop most of your ground based cards. Or maybe this time we want to base the whole thing around breaking into or defending the Death Star. But they even came up with sites that could be used with any planet and gave various bonuses to different cards. So it really expanded the playing field. But constructing a deck for the first time was really a task in itself. And usually your first iteration of a deck had issues, so you would want to refine it as you played more and more games.

And playing a SWCCG game could take a couple hours too. It could go longer if you used a larger deck (as we sometimes did, 80 cards opened up a lot of opportunities for tactics). But it was a good time, even if the game would force you into some situations where you might start cursing your luck or the luck of your opponent. Some days you keep drawing jawas and gaffi sticks, but Vader won't show up. Meanwhile Luke, Obi-Wan and Chewbacca are running around Tatooine taking control of each site and draining you for six cards a turn. Maybe the Jawa/Tuskan Raider deck wasn't a good idea after all.

The explosion of Star Wars popularity combined with the explosion of CCGs is certainly a time capsule to the 1990s, and one that always makes me smile.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Movie Music Musings: The Goldsmith Award 2013

Time for another Goldsmith award, where I take a look at a movie that may have bombed, but at least it gave us some good film music. 2013 had its share of poorly reviewed films, and a lot of them had some pretty uninteresting scores to boot. But the biggest money loser when compared to its original budget turned out to be Disney's attempt to reboot The Lone Ranger.

Just like the winner of the 2014 Goldsmith award, I'm not sure who was clamoring for a reboot of this franchise. Last time Hollywood tried this back in the early 1980s the film bombed then too. It is also a Western, a genre that just doesn't pull in the viewers like it used to. But Disney figured that their creative team that managed to rake in the Aztec gold from Pirates of the Caribbean would be able to do it again.

Besides none of us are sick of seeing Johnny Depp in white faced makeup acting oddly, right? Because I'm not sick of that... not. At. ALL!

Anyway, since we had the same creative team at work here, that mean Hans Zimmer and his crew were on hand to provide the music. The Lone Ranger gave Zimmer an opportunity to have some fun with a genre he's never really tackled before. Zimmer is also a huge fan of Ennio Morricone, who scored every other spaghetti western back in the 60s and 70s. So we were all kind of expecting a Zimmer take on that sound.

All told the score is entertaining, but really the best track is Finale (William Tell Overture) which is an modern film score take on the classical piece with all of Zimmer's trademark synth overlays and aggressiveness added to the music. Its really a great show stopping track and one of the best of 2013. So crank this one up and enjoy Zimmer and his team unleash some bullet ballet from The Lone Ranger.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Movie Musing: Genre Wars – Revenge of the Myth

Wizard with lightning attack. This is "Lord of the
Star Hobbits" right?
It has come up before and it is sure to come up again. Which genre do I pick when I categorize my blogs about Star Wars. They are science fiction, right? You see space ships, robots, laser guns and technology we don’t have yet. But then you’ve got The Force, which is clearly some kind of magical power. Also people are fighting with swords and most of the conflict is on a grand high fantasy level. So are they fantasy films? No, because you have WAR in the title. Much of the conflict in the series revolves around armies clashing for different ideals. These are war films. But then you have the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks and BB-8. Those are all such juvenile characters appealing to a very young crowd. These are kid flicks.

George, George, George, you didn’t make it easy for us.

"Obi Watanabe? Are you nuts?"
But that was by design. Lucas was making something that crossed multiple genres. It had elements of various familiar movies and stories. By mixing them together you get something that is new and yet familiar at the same time. Star Wars has been around so long, it is hard to remember when it was fresh. In 1977 people hadn’t seen anything really like it, and yet it reminded them of the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. There were elements of the John Carter novels in there. Obi-Wan was very much like a samurai from a Kurosawa film (and Lucas reportedly wanted famed Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune for the role). Darth Vader was a black knight of Arthurian legend and Princess Leia the damsel in distress (with the 70s twist of her being a lot tougher than she appeared). And then you have the music with John Williams creating a Golden Age flashback with his full orchestral bombast. During this time it was rare to hear scores that weren’t jazzy or rock influenced, fully electronic or comprised of mostly songs.

As the series expanded over the decades, each film added to different genre elements. Empire Strikes Back expanded the war storyline, as well as building on the powers of the Jedi and giving us more sci-fi goodies to watch. Return of the Jedi brought out even more silly aliens for the kids, a climactic resolution to the war and hero storylines and even more robots and strange new worlds. You get the idea.

Hiring a gunslinger at the local bar? Where's Luke's
white ten gallon hat?
The Star Wars franchise embraced its identity as a cross genre work that doesn’t’ fit snugly into any one role, but manages to do all of them with a solid degree of ability. Its success with the public and the impact on pop culture inspired others to give the same approach a try. Why do a straight up Western when you can do a Space Western like Outland or Firefly. How about set up a noir detective story in a grimy future like Blade Runner. Or maybe a soap opera inserted into a uncanny horror film. Welcome to Twin Peaks. And don’t get me started on anime. It seems like they’ve been doing this for as long as Lucas (and maybe even before). You want romance, and knights and giant robots all mixed into one story, Vision of Escaflowne may be what you’re looking for.

These days it seems like standard genre films just don’t cut the mustard any more. In most cases they’ve been done so many times there aren’t any new stories to tell. Sure you can shake up how you tell them, and with a director with a strong vision can make something fresh and exciting like Tarantino did with Django Unchained. But most films opt for combining a couple of genres together to add another unfamiliar element to the whole thing. I think we can thank (or curse if it annoys you) Star Wars for making that more acceptable.

Where will her
journey take her?
To me, Star Wars is a fantasy saga clothed in science fiction trappings. The core of the stories (especially the first six) is the rise and fall of a hero. It is classic mythic storytelling. Anakin represents the tragic part of the cycle in the first three films. Luke Skywalker represents the heroic part of the cycle in the second set of three. We’ll see if Rey matches one of these two cycles or if she forges her own path.

The characters and their evolution is what Star Wars is all about. It tells stories that are based on very old tales and links them together to create a new set of mythology. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but to me it is an important thing.

In my mind, science fiction is about humanity in a general sense. It always asks questions at its core, and these are questions about all of us. How will we survive on other worlds: The Martian. Is technology our gateway or hindrance to the next stage of evolution: 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ghostin the Shell or The Matrix. What are the perils of controlling evolution and life: Jurassic Park or Star Trek II and III.

Star Wars comes close to asking some of these questions. In the original trilogy you could argue that there is an anti-technology message. The Empire has all this impressive technology at their disposal, but they never win completely. They are constantly thwarted by rebels who have less resources, and outdated technology. Luke destroys the first Death Star without any technological aid, just The Force as his guide. Yoda is a Jedi Master who lives in the middle of nowhere with not a single sign of any technology, and yet he is one of the most powerful characters in the saga. The Ewoks literally use sticks and stones to bring down the Empires best legion of troopers.

But the films never really ask the question, are humans better off without technology. Because all the characters are surrounded by technology at all times, and would be at a loss without it. Even though R2-D2 is unable to help Luke destroy the Death Star, they would have been dead earlier in the film if R2-D2 didn’t save them in the trash compactor.

"No seriously kid, no Jedi says Whoopee!"
So is the message a confused mess? I don’t think so. I think Lucas is not telling us that technology is evil or saying that humans are better off without technology. It is not a question of technology at all, but a question of instinct. Ben Kenobi (and later Qui Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace) ask their pupils to focus zen-like on now. “Stretch out with your feelings.” “Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts.” “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.” The message here is that technology is a fine too, but it is only a tool. The human instrument is just as critical. This message is about the person, not the scope of humanity.

The other time Star Wars comes close to commenting on technology is with the clones. But again, it becomes a question of use. How you use the clones is more important than any moral or ethical questions on their creation. I think science fiction stories dealing with clones almost always struggle with that moral dilemma. But Star Wars doesn’t even question it. It just happens. In many ways they are treated like droids are in the Star Wars saga. It is an interesting approach (and one of the things I really liked aboutthe prequels). But they are in service to the story, not an element meant for us to ask questions about.

Good vs. Evil in visual metaphor.
All this means that Star Wars sits firmly in the realm of fantasy for me. I find it easier to view it through that lens, especially from a thematic and narrative point of view. Star Trek is much more of a science fiction series, even though it often focuses on the characters stories and lives, and will dive into war and fantasy elements. In the end Star Trek offers us questions about humanity’s journey. Star Wars offers us questions about our personal and spiritual journey.

No, you want a series that is a true amalgam of science fiction and fantasy in almost equal parts – The Matrix has you covered there.


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Thursday, May 4, 2017

And Then This Happened... Star Wars: The New Hope

One of the things that everyone remembers from Star Wars: A New Hope is the cantina scene. Back in 1977 no one had seen that many different aliens in one film before. And for a fan of strange and bizarre aliens this was a dream come true. They were all practical effects, a mix of puppets, costumes and make up. Well until 1997 when Mr. Lucas added a few CG characters into the mix. I guess he didn't like his wolf man creatures.

But fear not, some of us didn't forget. And some of us still have the original version on DVD. So go ahead and give a caption for this scene missing from the current version of the film.

And then this happened...


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Score Sample: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story (2016)

So last year I posted a Score Sample about French composer Alexandre Desplat slated to compose the score for Rogue One, and how I was interested in hearing it. Well production woes hit Rogue One in a big way and Desplat was unable to work on the film. Instead Disney turned to one of their go to composers and one of my favorite composers working today: Michael Giacchino.

Thing is, Giacchino only had four weeks to composer a full blown score to a Star Wars film. Not an easy task for anyone. Giacchino was up to the task and crafted a score that not only provides brand new themes for the characters and situations in the film, but also references themes and style from John Williams score for Star Wars: A New Hope. And we aren't talking about the more famous thematic moments here, we are talking about the less known motifs, such the one used for the Death Star and one used for Stormtroopers and Darth Vader before Williams crafted the well known imperial march for The Empire Strikes Back.

All told Giacchino's score works very well in the film and for all his references to the older scores, I enjoy his new material a lot. His theme for the fearless Jyn Erso may be the best of the new material. Here is a suite version of her theme followed by his Hope theme, which makes a good solid nod to William's main Star Wars theme. Enjoy.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Reptilicus (1961) – MST3K Review

Summary:

While drilling for minerals in the hinterlands of Denmark, Svend (Bent Mejding) and his crew come upon some strange flesh and blood on the drill bit. Quickly a scientific team consisting of Dr. Dalby (Povl Woldike) and Professor Martens (Asbjorn Andersen) arrive and declare that the flesh is from a frozen and preserved prehistoric reptile of enormous size. They remove the tail portion and take it back to a top-secret lab to run a series of experiments on it.

Because this is a monster movie they discover that the reptile flesh can regenerate, and soon they have a giant prehistoric creature growing in front of them. That is always a great situation, right? Well soon enough the creature reveals that if’s flesh is harder than stone, it can spit acid and has a taste for human flesh! Worse, it escapes from the lab and starts terrorizing Denmark and making a beeline to Copenhagen! The UN swoops in, but the real danger becomes apparent. If you blow up the creature, all those little parts can regenerate into new large creatures. Is there any hope for humanity against the terror of Reptilicus?

Movie Review:

"Could you check my teeth. I think I got a little
Danish stuck in there. HA! I kill me!"
Another film in the long line of Godzilla imitators, this time Denmark wanted a piece of the action. Where does this fall in the scope of movies that span from Gorgo to Gamera? Well maybe somewhere on the lower end of things. But any fan of monster movies is going to find plenty to enjoy here. Let’s dive in and see what Reptilicus has to offer.

The film follows all the traditional monster movie beats. The monster is discovered, and examined by scientists. The monster suddenly explodes from its hiding spot and rampages around. The military steps in and tries to stop it but fails miserably. After a major metropolis is devastated, someone (usually the bland hero) comes up with an idea to take down the beast. There is more destruction but the monster is defeated. But we all know that it will return in the sequel.

Holy... did I just see that?
Sorry, but no sequel to Reptilicus.

What is strange that is that even though the film hits all the story points you expect it doesn’t really make them terribly interesting. Typical of this type of movie, lots of time is spent with the humans talking about the monster, and not as much time spent with the creature. If your characters aren’t interesting then you’re going to have a problem.

Well most of the conversation is between Dr. Dalby and Professor Martens, and those two don’t exactly light up the room with energy or excitement. Mostly they are earnest and thoughtful. To compliment them you’ve got our youthful Svend, who doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s just the younger guy in the cast and helps the army with some ideas. But since he is pretty much a foreman for a drilling operation, his expertise in prehistoric reptiles is limited.

I think Karen may be more interested in Svend than
Reptilicus will ever be.
If you want cute girls, the movie has them too. Professor Martens has two lovely daughters Lise (Ann Smyrner) the wise one and Karen (Mimi Heinrich) the flirty one. They wander in and out of the movie to provide some cute commentary and make googly eyes as Svend. But they really don’t do too much else. There is also Dr. Connie Miller (Marlies Behrens) who is sent by the UN to um… do something… She hangs around with the General quite a bit, so there is that.

Yeah the General is one of the most colorful characters in the film. Played by Carl Ottosen he actually almost has a character arc. He arrives in Copenhagen from the U.S. and is bored and feels useless. But when things get crazy he steps into action. Ottosen actually tries to make his character go from confident to disturbed to resigned. He is doing his best, but man, Reptilicus is one hell of an adversary. Even dubbed, it’s a decent performance.

Oh the hilarity that is about to ensue... not really.
Then you get the comic relief character of Petersen played by Dirch Passer who is kind of like Denmark’s version of Jerry Lewis. He plays a Danish hick who is hired to keep watch of the top-secret lab at night. He mugs a lot, says stupid things and generally makes a nuisance out of himself. The character doesn’t have much going on and vanishes about three quarters of the way through the film. Passer may have been a comic genius of his time, but his work in Reptilicus isn’t very funny at all. Luckily he isn’t in too much of the film.

"You seen Smaug around here? He owes me
5 gold pieces."
I see you over there staring at me and demanding to know more about our title monster. Ok, you asked for it. He’s completely and totally goofy. Nothing about him is intimidating. He looks to be marionette controlled, and this renders his movement wobbly and inconstant. You begin to doubt that the poor creature is going to remain upright much less destroy anything. Beyond bobbing around on the screen, he doesn’t have a lot of motion in his face. Instead the filmmakers rely on some really hilarious visual effects to create the slime blast the creature creates. Supposedly this stuff is like acid, but we never get a good look at the destructive properties, the screen gets some animated green ooze across it and then we move on.

Mostly Reptilicus is scary because he destroys model buildings. Nothing wrong with that, it is a staple of Godzilla films down through the ages. But the ones used in this film seem less convincing and intricate as the ones used by the Japanese monster movie masters. Instead you just chuckle at how silly the whole thing looks. My favorite moments are when Reptilicus looks like he is stuck behind some kind of model work and can’t move. Oh, and those green slime sequences are bad movie gold. When he finally eats someone, that is worth the price of admission. One of the most mind blowing special effects I’ve seen in a movie of this type – I’m not exaggerating.

Didn't Fred Flintstone eat these?
The rest of the production elements aren’t bad. The music is a bit over done, but does its best to build tension and thrills. The sound effects work fine enough. All the army footage has some punch to it. It looks like they really had full-blown military participation for the movie, not just stock footage. So some of it is kind of impressive. But the best scenes are the ones where hundreds of Danes are running in terror down the street or away form the beach. You can tell they really got people to go for it in this. One sequence blew my mind, where actual stuntmen are jumping and falling off an enormous bridge in Copenhagen. You can tell they are real people taking the plunge. Wow! I’m sure Reptilicus wouldn’t eat them after seeing that stunt work.

Crowds not seen since the Beatles were in town.
The movie has solid direction. The camerawork is functional. The sequences with the monster appear to use a different film stock, and those scenes look really beat up for some reason. But everything else looks pretty good. It’s well lit and framed. Not amateur hour like Manos: The Hands of Fate or even Samurai Cop.

In the end, the movie is almost entertaining. Since is follows such familiar plot points, and the characters are so bland you are never really engaged in all the human activity in the first half of the film. But once Reptilicus breaks out of the lab, the fun begins. The monster is so silly looking, the visual effects are so unconvincing, and the impressive spectacle of the army, stunt work and running masses make things pick up quite a bit. A solid watch for fans of dubbed monster movies, just don’t expect Godzilla. This is more like Gamera vs. Gaos territory, but without the blood fountain. All told, this may be a perfect introduction to Jonah and the bots tackling the first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s historic eleventh season.

Episode Review:

"Photo-bomb!"
If you jump in your time machine and travel back to 2010 and ask me if I think Mystery Science Theater 3000 will ever return to television, or get rebooted or anything like that, and I’d shake my head sadly and say “Not a chance”.  In my mind the show was fragment of an era that was gone. With YouTubers doing their own riffing (including the hilarious Josh Way over at Fun with Shorts) and the alums of the show working on Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic it just never seemed in the cards. Besides, who could take that concept of low budget show riffing bad movies with puppet robots and make it work in this day and age.

Well the answer was simple, the creative mind behind the concept, Joel Hodgeson. Through a mixture of passion, marketing savvy and a lot of fans like me, he got one of the biggest Kickstarter campaigns funded, hell, it was overfunded. His target was to create 12 new episodes, but the stretch goal of 14 episodes (including a Christmas special) was reached. It was a resounding success for everyone involved.

A new door sequence gives us peak into Jonah's
living quarters and robot repair bay.
But then came the months of waiting, as the show went through preproduction, production and postproduction, not to mention shopping it around to networks who could show the episodes.  Other key participants like Shout! Factory who have been doing amazing work with the MST3K DVD and Bluray releases were also involved. It was agony and ecstasy to see the whole thing coming together. Because, as I’m sure you are all too aware, this is my favorite television series of all time. It is a friend I turn to when I need a laugh. It is part of my lexicon and even forms part of a secret language I have with my wife. I can quote riffs from the show that fit the current situation and she can respond in kind. It is scary and maybe a little sad, but MST3K is really a big part of who I am.

So I was trying to stay optimistic and was also nervous. Because I was one of those Star Wars fans who lived and breathed the original trilogy and then lived in denial of how bad The Phantom Menace really was for a couple years. The eventual disappointment left scars. And sad to say, I try not to get invested in pop culture to that extent too much any more. I avoid hype and excitement and try to judge things as cold as I can.

Gypsy pops into the theater and throws a couple
of riffs at the film too.
But this was MST3K and I put in my cash to help bring it back. So it was really hard to be objective. And to be honest, I still might not be there yet. As of this writing, I’m not quite half way through the new season, so I can’t really give a full retrospective of it. But I can say that the show does aim for the right target, and I think for the most part it succeeds.

I’m off track here, but I also wanted to give a bit of context about Season 11 and why I’m writing about it. But if you want to know more about Reptilicus as an episode, well here we go.

Not only does Gypsy have a new voice, but now she
descends from the ceiling.
As the first episode of Season 11, Reptilicus has some heavy lifting to do. It has to bring new viewers up to speed with the show’s premise. It has to get old timers engaged with the new cast and concept. For that older audience it also has to reassure them that this is the Mystery Science Theater 3000 they remember and love, but with a new coat of paint and some new folks at the helm. Yeah there are some cosmetic changes; there are some slight tonal shifts, but all in all the heart of the show is still the same. It’s a good-natured time with a cheesy movie, some skilled comedy writers and performers and a healthy dose of silliness.

That is a lot of stuff to accomplish and for the most part this episode does all those things fairly well.

The framing elements of the host segments and opening theme song all move fairly briskly. Not a lot of time is taken up getting Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) wrapped up in Kinga Forrester’s (Felicia Day) experiment with the devious Max (Patton Oswald) at her side. This pre-credit sequence becomes the opening credits and then we jump a couple months later where Jonah is at home with his robot pals Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount) and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn). Gypsy is also around with a new voice provided by Rebecca Hanson.

Need a break? The Boneheads provide a musical
interlude every half hour or so.
In between the riffing the movie does pause for breaks, just like the older series did for commercials. In some cases we get the Bonehead band (a group of musical henchmen that work for Kinga) playing instrumental versions of classic songs from MST3K’s older seasons including Living in Deep 13 and the Wild Rebels cereal jingle. It’s a surprising bit of musical fun. But you also get a dash of host segments where Jonah and the bots banter about something in the movie.

"Every monster has a nation."
Reptilicus attempts to give viewers a smattering of just about everything in these host segments, including a song performed by Jonah and the bots about monsters and the nations they come from. It is a very funny tune and actually an earworm, so be warned you might find yourself humming it hours later. Later Crow decides to slice off Servo’s arm and see if he will regenerate like Reptilicus. It works! At the next break Jonah and the bots read some letters from fans. Amazing they already have fans in the first episode, but it is a nice callback to the Comedy Central days. When the movie ends Gypsy is Reptilicus as she destroys a model city. I think she might be more convincing than the monster in the film. Kinga and Max discuss the experiment and Max gets to push the button.

For me the song is really the highlight of the host segments, but it was neat to see the different elements that the new show was taking from the old one and bringing into this new version. It really balances the low budget look and feel of the old show, but still manages to have a little bit more visual interest going on, especially in the larger space of Moon 13 in Kinga’s lair.

Max, don't mess with her, seriously man.
She was one of the potential slayers in Buffy!
But the host segments really do look backwards, the silly song, the multiple Servos (a running gag in the old show), the letters from fans and the commentary by the mad scientists after the experiment all keep that nostalgia going, even if the faces in front of the camera are different. The character dynamics are in play too. Kinga and Max are really funny with Oswald really playing Max as an extension of Frank, maybe a little more put upon and less gleeful. Instead the manic part of the equation goes to Day as Kinga. She has a ton of energy and plays the mad part of the role really well. They are really a fun pairing and even though they don’t get too much screen time in this episode, you end up wanting to see more of them, which is a good thing.

Tom Servo is caught in the wake!
Jonah and the bots also have camaraderie from the first time we see them. All three actors know each other and you can tell they are having a good time. Jonah does a fine job interacting with the puppets (who are a bit more advanced in this iteration and require a more than a single performer). But his banter with them really feels genuine, even in this episode.

The only misstep is that the characters of Crow and Tom were very well defined after 10 seasons of the series. It feels like Yount and Vaughn are doing their best to stay true to Crow and Tom we know, but they don’t’ seem quite as distinct as they used to be. Part of this is the voice quality of the actors. Jonah and Baron have very similar voices. In the old series Kevin Murphy’s deeper voice always contrasted well with Trace and Bill’s versions of Crow. That isn’t the case here. It is a bit more of a problem in the theater. You’ll hear a funny riff but will be unable to tell which of the boys said it from the voice itself. Not a huge issue and one that I think will sort itself out as the series continues. I’ll get used to the new voices, and I think the cast will define the characters for the robots a bit better.

Two familiar faces watch as Jonah attempts to save the day.
Joel did promise that we would get some surprising cameo appearances in the host segments. The episode actually starts with two sci-fi television series alums making an appearance. I got a good chuckle out of seeing them, and enjoyed their performances. Looking forward to seeing who else appears on the show.

So what about the riffing? Well I have to say that Reptilicus is a movie that provides plenty of material for Jonah and the bots to work with. It has enough odd dialogue, bad dubbing and unusual editing in the first half to keep things interesting. But in all honesty the riffing started out a bit slow. I’m not sure if it is because they wanted to ease new viewers into the concept, or if they were just saving the better material for the second half. The movie does drag a bit at first and the riffing does help a bit, but there are a few scenes that could have used a bit more energy.

Crow's horror in the face of the temperature gauge is real.
But when we get the sequence where Reptilicus starts growing into his original form the riffing ratchets up a notch. There is an oddly edited sequence between a sleeping scientist, a wall clock and a temperature gauge. Each of the boys shoots out a riff as the scenes edit quickly in a pattern around these three things. Crow becomes more and more frantic and it is hilarious, pointing out how strange the editing is while also making it funny.

I also love the riffing that revolves around the comic relief character Peterson. It reminds me of Catalina Caper when Joel sarcastically anticipating the next “hilarious” pratfall. In this film, Jonah and the bots start to groan whenever they see the guy on screen, and try to anticipate his shtick and do their best to actually make his scenes funny.

When Reptilicus explodes into his rampage, the riffing hits overdrive. I’m not kidding here. The guys unleash and it actually goes a little too fast. You’ll find yourself chuckling at a joke, but missing a volley of three more that follow right behind it. This will entice you to rewatch the episode, but it also gives you a feeling that you’re missing some of good material. But I have to say the comedy in the second half of the film is really excellent, feeling like something from a season four or five episode. And that is high praise indeed.

"I can't find my 10 sided dice!"
The General’s desperation is a big point for the riffing. He gets a bit over dramatic at times and the boys add some very funny lines to his dialogue. One of my favorite moments occurs when the camera enters the planning room for the General and we see all these men sitting around a desk staring at a map. Someone comments that it looks like the worlds largest Dungeons and Dragons game and the riffs that spring from that are hilarious. There are also some very funny video game references when the army attacks Reptilicus in a few scenes. This isn’t too surprising since Felicia Day is on the writing team and her web series The Guild was all about gamers.

Like any good MST3K treatment of a giant monster, the boys give Reptilicus a funny voice and amusing lines as he rampages about. Some of these are up there with the monster commentary from The Giant GilaMonster, so I was glad to see that tradition kept alive and handled well.

Reptilicus in "Attack the Block".
All told the riffing is very solid. There is a wonderful mix of riffing types, and material that will tickle the funny bone of just about any age watching this episode. They make references to 1950’s television shows, 1980’s commercials and current video game trends. The first half is a little slower, but the movie isn’t giving them quite as much to work with. But the second half is very funny, even if it does get a bit oversaturated with jokes. I’ve seen this episode twice and I will say I caught different jokes the second viewing, so it was just as entertaining the with the repeat viewing.

Ok, you can't do that on television.
In the scheme of things Repticlicus offers us one of the better season openers in the series. The energy is there, you can tell the cast and crew are game, and the writing is solid. It is a good time for sure and good episode that manages to show new viewers what the show is all about, while keeping old timers happy with the overall tone and approach to the concept. I will say that if you are a fan of the more aggressive style of riffing that occurred during the Sci-fi Channel years (seasons 8 through 10), you might be a bit disappointed. Jonah and the bots don’t’ seem to be attacking the movie, but having a good time with it. But the speed of the riffing is much closer to the later seasons, and in my mind that is the best of both worlds, closer to Seasons four, five and six, which contain some of my favorite episodes.

Reptilicus isn’t perfect, but I didn’t expect it to be. It is a great introduction to Season 11, and a great start to what I hope is a fun season. I give it three blobs of cartoon slime out of five.


This episode is available on Netflix Streaming.